Kim Kyung Ju, Crying For No Reason (Clinic, 2017, £5.00)
Azad Ashim Sharma, Against the Frame (Barque Press, 2017, £5.00)
Calliope Michail, Along Mosaic Roads (The 87 Press, 2017, £5.00)
Crying for no reason (Clinic) by Kim Kyung Ju, translated by Jake Levine, is a spectacular pamphlet. The imaginative reach of the imagery is startling, due in part to the process by which it is assembled. The book presents the world as though it’s composed of tracing paper, where multiple worlds are overlaid upon one another until, beyond all expectation, they align. It’s the intricacies of the human body that are mapped onto the natural landscape and then vice versa, producing a series of juddering switches between the realm of reality and its hidden twin sister that keeps the reader on their toes. Take ‘Reindeer on my upper lip’ for example.
Reindeer graze on my upper lip, nibbling
the cold roots of a tree and the blue leaves
that bud out from the horns
of a reindeer calf that froze to death.
Once upon a time, a baleen whale
breached upon my upper lip.
All sense of natural barrier is broken down by the sudden flip in logic, a tendency which also surfaces in ‘Sweep up a flock’. Here, birds ‘pass through’ the body itself against a backdrop of clouds that ‘smell of flesh’, clouds that then ‘float down and sip the water in the valley’. These are stories which seek to disrupt rationality and to catch the reader off-guard, something which is hinted at in the silent pauses between poems as you flick through pages without any page numbers. ‘Aurora’ offers one of the most playful examples. As clouds float on the foreheads of sleeping deer, white moons float inside mouths, and the poet somehow floats inside the palm of their own hand, any preconception surrounding scale and perspective is folded up like a paper plane and tossed to the wind. These poems are precious because they cultivate the wild glee of wanderlust, unlocking hidden dimensions of poetic thought in a way that positively defies the possible. They court danger as in ‘Thunder’, ‘If someone builds a fire / I go inside’, and they intend to stop for no-one, ‘Like a rumour that was born / when someone pushed it off a cliff / my body itch / is a traveller about to depart.’ This is a poem which makes sure to dodge the claws of cliché. It re-works the familiar narrative of turning ‘white with fear’ in line with the image of entering into the flames: the flamboyance of self-destruction is always the final destination.
In the titular piece, ‘Crying for no reason’, this horizon is hinted at by ‘lips stuck together in the snow / saying ‘I’ll take you home,’ / between us, a shared sense of the death / of our singular selves’. The manifold layering of landscapes, corporeal and countryside, intelligently converge at this very concept. The ideas surrounding a ‘shared sense of the death’ resurface in the final poem of the pamphlet, ‘Contemporary Literature’, whose self-reflexive nature is summative for the collection as a whole. It leaves the reader clinging onto little more than a pile of burning embers after a remarkable spectacle of self-erasure.
If you take aim at life
the arrow tapers off the years.
If you aim at death
the blood of the target dims.
And your pockets, they get filled up.
With eraser dust.
Azad Ashim Sharma’s first collection, Against the Frame (Barque Press), engages with the on-going conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan with a fierce lack of diffidence. The scope of issues under scrutiny is somewhat dizzying for the collection flits between a generous selection: from refugee crises and the repercussions of terrorism, to a lack of sexual progress and prejudice. Elsewhere, looking at the dangerously fine line between security and dictatorship, the media is condemned with a sardonic tongue as it ‘descends into the known chaos / pointing its shrivelled white finger / with the cocksureness of VAT for sugar.’ These are poems that ‘bulldoze for freedom’ and won’t settle for anything less. They forage in the shadowy depths of back alleyways and ballot boxes, not for answers, and certainly not plying for pity; simply asking for some form of acknowledgement in the face of contemporary disorder. Each poem claims a modest-sized plot of paper, sometimes limited to three or four lines, albeit reflecting notable depth. They resist drowning in the stifling silence of an expansive white page, each poem being printed centrally for emphasis on this struggle. ‘I strike your dialectics with anterior resolve / and awaken numbed in silent stress / positions beneath these infrared end stops.’ The reclamation of a right to speak burns urgently at their core, as in the poem that protests against ‘passivity before the simulation / you ban my existence without an apology’. Against a backdrop of bullets that ‘pierce / flesh made foal orchid / as separatist islamist’, the poet’s words become weapons: ‘we’re all one word away from screaming to be heard / whilst pretended to be listened to and understood’. There are no titles to these fleeting reflections either, as though resisting any form of subordination to the law of language, embracing liberation in its entirety.
As racist insults peel away from concrete and orifices are ‘poked and prodded by the white latex / made to cough, squat, gut wrenched, / checked for explosives in the airport cubicle’, the collection takes an inwards glance to Azad’s complex Islamic-Hindu hybrid identity too. ‘When we look in the mirror / we are made to fear ourselves.’ The feeling returns with heart wrenching force on a train platform when a child goes to hold the speaker’s hand, a harmless greeting which is quickly curtailed by the prejudice of a wary mother.
And what is worse?
Rejection by a mother and child
or the understanding I have
of her choice in this climate of fear?
There’s a powerful negotiation of feelings at play, brushing against shame and trauma with an eloquent tongue. Along Mosaic Roads (The 87 Press) by Calliope Michail is billed as a series of lyrical peregrinations that chart journeys into real and imagined spaces. These are poems that plough the depths of desire and memory and emerge with exciting treasure. In ‘Carte de Tendre’, for example, there’s the curious longing to be able to calculate love.
I sat down with a ruler and pencil and
the sea of desire, the volcanoes
of passion, the highways of
egos, the intersections
of compromises […] oceans of loss
Ultimately, the quantitative aims fall short of their intention, ‘no amount / of coordinated, delicately drawn / lines, contours, scales and grids / can ever tell the truth of the land.’ Nevertheless, the poem is inquisitive, redrafting the contours of pain and emotion with exquisite precision; ‘the star speckled deserts of / honesty, the silent forests / of questions unasked’. This lingering urge to claim and conquer the pastoral, to soften the rough edges upon ‘the ridges mountains / of conflict’, in line with a somewhat romantic idealism, speaks loudly in ‘Time over Place over You over Me’. ‘If I could lasso the fireworks / dispersing under the calvarium / dome, harness the hushed / tornado’ — the poems reach for the impossible and take great pleasure in the ride. Elsewhere, in ‘Standing on the Sun’, the speaker thaws out of their own body, is ‘evicted’ like a sigh, at once melancholic and mitigating carried by a forlorn sense of relief. In ‘Bimarian’, the pages lull with ‘the sweet plucking’ of the sea, whilst other poems chime across more gritty cityscapes of beer bottles and broken ruin.
In addition to challenging the limits of time and space, this collection seeks to escape the confines of language itself, as in ‘Standing on the Sun iv’: ‘you don’t have / to use the dictionary, or the rail / tracks of syntax.’ Wise and wonderful, these humble poems wrap themselves up with a refreshing sense of honesty, ‘There is no guarantee / you will find your way. But you will find / a way.’